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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Guest opinion: A response to criticisms of sustainable agriculture

Last week’s guest opinion, “The grass is greener on the other side … or is it?” discussed a range of topics – Meatless Mondays, antibiotic use in animal husbandry, organic farming, the word “sustainable,” media bias and feedlot beef vs. free range. The information offered appeared to promote large and conventional agriculture, the consumption of meat and a fair and balanced discussion of topics such as sustainability.

Before offering my opinion on the article, I think it is important to divulge my bias and perspective. I am a sophomore international agricultural development major interested in promoting the viability of small farms for their environmental, economic and social worth. I recognize that small farms have certain setbacks, including requiring more labor, reduced “economies of scale,” and in some opinions, lower yield.

My answer to the first setback is that more jobs are never a bad thing, especially with high unemployment. Having more people who know about growing food will decrease our resource dependence as a nation.

In regards to decreased “economies of scale,” some studies have shown that small farms with more labor may not produce more money per acre, but they do produce more food per acre. When a machine harvests tomatoes, it only passes over the field once, when many of the tomatoes are over-ripe or under-ripe. If humans do the harvesting over a longer period of time, they can get many more tomatoes.

Lastly, with regard to lower yields, there are two important things to consider: Do we need more food, and what are the costs of higher yields?

Some studies show that we actually have more than enough food to feed everyone on the globe – we produce 3600 calories per person per day – but we do not distribute it fairly, and first-world countries waste a large portion of it.

In response to the second question, the costs of ever-higher yields include soil erosion, desertification, water and air pollution and negative health effects for humans and wildlife, to name a few. If we are growing enough food, the only reason to over-produce is for pure monetary profit. Surely we could produce a little less in the form of small, organic farms and still be able to feed everyone with a healthier planet.

Now, to address the article. The three points I would like to cover are feedlot vs. free-range cattle, Meatless Mondays, and media bias towards sustainability.

Doing a complete energy cost comparison of feedlot vs. free-range beef is complicated to say the least. All studies must choose some way to narrow their field of study. I would like to argue that the results of the study mentioned in last week’s opinion appear to have too narrow a field.

In general terms, what goes into the life of feedlot cattle vs. free-range? Cows raised in feedlot conditions require land and energy to grow and transport their feed, land and energy to build and maintain the structure that houses them, energy to transport water to them and antibiotics to keep them healthy due to disease-causing conditions (such as living in packed conditions, eating dead animals and living in manure). A free-range cow does require more time to finish, which equals less profit, but they get their own food, do not require expensive housing or water transportation and do not require as many antibiotics because they have a more robust immune system from living outdoors. The feedlot cattle model offers more cattle and more profit, but again, at what costs? Are manure lagoons, excess antibiotic use and high-energy costs worth satiating our every desire for meat that can have detrimental effects on our own health if consumed in excess?

Now, enter Meatless Mondays. My understanding of Meatless Mondays is that it is meant to raise awareness of the effects of over-consumption of meat on our health and the environment’s. Because the Dining Commons still serve meat on Meatless Mondays, there is no pressure to not consume meat if one wishes to continue eating meat. A healthy diet has a wide range of protein sources from soy to nuts to animal products, if desired. Meatless Mondays serve to educate those interested in both nutrition and environmental impacts.

An energy-related fact to consider is that at each tropic level, 90 percent of energy is lost. This means that when cows consume grass and we consume cows, we are only getting 1 percent of the energy converted from the sun when we could be getting 10 percent if we ate at a lower tropic level.

The last point I’m interested in discussing is media hype and distortion over “sustainability.” I completely agree that what is in the planet’s and humanity’s best interest has been overshadowed by a commoditization of “green” products and meaningless buzzwords. A critical discussion is needed with contributions from all parties if we hope to find answer to some of our most pressing issues.

Even though sustainability has been co-opted, I still hang on to my own definition and hope that it can guide my actions. Sustainability means, to me, a method of decision making that takes into consideration the environmental, economic and social impacts of an action. Sustainability does not have an endpoint, rather it is a journey we must take as a global society, forever adjusting our course based on the current generation’s needs and values.

With all that said, if you are interested in some tangible food projects that, in my opinion, work towards sustainability, check out these programs on-campus.

Co-fed: Students are working on a cooperatively run food co-op on campus to bring healthy, locally, community-empowering food choices to our campus. Contact mrbernstein@ucdavis.edu.

Harvest Rescue: Lots of food goes to waste on university experimental farms. Want to make sure that food isn’t wasted and goes to the needy? Contact arcrittenden@ucdavis.edu.

Save the Domes: The Domes have offered students a living/learning environment for decades to learn about hands-on agriculture and community. Don’t let this community be shut down. For more information, contact savethedomes@gmail.com.

A few more groups to look up on campus are: CSSC, SSA, CCE, EC Garden, WEF, EPPC and Tri Co-ops.

Reach LAUREN COCKRELL at lrcockrell@ucdavis.edu.


  1. Hey, do you think you could put forth an argument instead of pointless condescension? I don’t understand why people do that online. Would you be such an asshole in person? There are highly educated PhD-holding professors who share the view put forth here..do they also need to go back to school so they can be as enlightened as you are with your infinite knowledge?

  2. Also with your trophic level comment, you have to remember that what cows eat, is nearly nutritionally useless to humans as they are not capable of digesting it. Cows use little critters called microbes to digest high foods in their rumen which humans cant do, unless you are a ruminant which in that case, you’d be a very prized research specimen

  3. So your comment on free-range cattle are healthier because they live outdoors. So I want to know where those fancy condos are that the feedlot cattle live in.

    Obviously you are still young have much much to learn before you graduate


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